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Mark Thomas: "My career is built out of the smell of burned bridges"

The comedian and activist on his new show and walking the "wall" between Israel and the West Bank.

The comedian and activist Mark Thomas has campaigned against the arms trade, tried to write a manifesto for a people's revolution and once wrote a column in the New Statesman joking that a bounty should be put on George Bush's head. His latest venture, "Extreme Rambling: Walking the Wall", involved spending eight weeks following the route of the "separation barrier" that divides Israel and the West Bank.

He describes it as "the story of 300,000 settlers, a 750km wall, six arrests, one stoning, too much houmous and a simple question . . . Can you ever get away from it all with a good walk?"

I attended one of the early shows in the run and thought NS readers might like to catch up with what Mark is doing now, so I collared him for a chat . . .

What was the most memorable thing about walking the wall?

Walking in Hebron was a very personal thing. There were about four of us and we got to the top of this hill. There's virtually nothing there. There is a wall, there are four houses. And two kids come out of the house.

They say "Shalom" and nip back into the house. The mum comes out and says: "Have you had breakfast?" We say: "That's very kind of you," so she comes out with this massive kettle of tea -- with all the little glasses.

Five minutes later, we are just finishing the tea when she comes out with home-made bread, home-made sheep's milk yoghurt, home-made sheep's milk butter, home-grown tomatoes and cucumbers and home-cured olives.

I sat there and thought: "I am never going to experience this again in my life -- this level of ingrained hospitality to strangers." It was so beautiful -- I don't want to sound this romantic but it was amazing.

What was most eye-opening about the experience?

Bureaucracy. If you are Palestinian, you aren't given building permits. In 2008, 128 were given to a population of a quarter of a million.

That means when your family gets bigger -- your son or daughter gets married and starts having children, for example -- you can't build extensions to your home. Just 13 per cent of land in East Jerusalem is zoned for Palestinians. On top of that, you have to get permission, which you won't get. So Palestinians have to build illegally.

The [Israeli] settlers find out about this, they get court orders to shut down the rooms that have been added and then they try to gain entrance to occupy the rooms. This happens house by house, lot by lot.

Is it a depressing place to be?

What was brilliant was the number of Palestinians who talked about, and were committed to, non-violent resistance.

There were people from the "Stop the Wall" campaign, organisers from Jordan Valley, people who do tree planting and the Christians who issued the Kairos Palestine document, which is an answer to the people who say, "God gave us the land." When the Christians get it right, they do it really well!

And you have the Combatants for Peace: remarkable people who make these personal journeys of overcoming their fears and seeing through the prejudice.

What is interesting is that everyone is talking about non-violent resistance but there is not one of them who, at some point, will not have felt the rage that says, "Do unto them as they have done unto us." And that's completely natural.

What about on a broader scale?

Nationally, the politics is fucked; the national politicians are fucked. But the community leaders are astounding. Seeing those things gives you hope.

Tell me about your experiences at the refugee camp in Jenin.

There's this place called Freedom Theatre. I went in to see people studying drama. There are three women studying drama in a refugee camp -- they are the most erudite and lucid women.

One of them was called a slag because she does the drama course -- and some people put around leaflets saying she was a tart. Her family walked her in to the theatre to do the drama degree, physically fighting the people who were putting out the leaflets. It sounds awful but I thought it was fucking great. Someone fighting to let their daughter do drama!

One guy told me that suicide bombing was an option for him. He thought that it was a very noble thing to defend your community, until he discovered drama and thought it was this brilliant, brilliant thing. It presses all my buttons. This isn't flag-waving theatre, either: this is proper theatre. Its first production was Animal Farm. The Palestinian National Authority went fucking nuts and someone tried to firebomb the theatre.

Do you think that a lot of people have withdrawn from the debate about the West Bank and Gaza because it's such a heated one?

We can't make this a taboo issue. This is one of the global moral issues of our age. Burma is another one.

Have you mellowed as you got older?

Yes, I think I might have.

Did becoming a father make you more or less angry?

I do care what people think but I don't care as much. I'm very happy doing what I want to do and I don't have to care about fashion or fads.

I like the complexity of things. On the Palestinian side, for example, the gang masters are fucking evil pigs. They need to be condemned. You have to be critically engaged.

Of all the campaigns you've worked on, which was your favourite?

The Ilisu dam campaign. It was about the British government's financial support of dam-building in the Kurdish region of Turkey. Seventy-eight thousand people were going to be displaced in a recovering war zone. It had an evil vibe around it.

The people we were working with were wonderful; campaigners such as Nick Hildyard from the Cornerhouse. He said the first thing we need to do is go out into the Kurdish region and find out what they want us to do. There is no point working in solidarity unless it really is in solidarity. So we went there and what they said was: "We want you to attack the finances." We spent three years doing it and we stopped the dam being built.

I liked the fake PR company you ran, teaching arms dealers to overhaul their image.

That was funny because we used to stay in the hotel with all the old arms leaders. We'd get up and have breakfast with them and they'd be drunk. It was a credible admission of the use of UK equipment in East Timor and that was very important.

Do you vote?

Yes.

Is there a plan?

For me? For my career? Oh, fuck no. No, no, no, no, no. I'm rather proud that my career is built out of the smell of burned bridges. I have pissed off so many people. Me and Channel 4, we hold each other in mutual antipathy, if it ever crosses our minds to think about each other.

Is there anything you regret?

Masses of stuff. As a younger performer, I was very eager to get on. It meant that I was brusque in my relationships with people when I shouldn't have been. I should have taken my time. And there are things we did for telly that I regret. We probably should have stopped a series earlier than we did.

Are you compromising less now?

The way we funded this [touring show about the West Bank] was quite nice. I used the book money. You can get the finance by doing various bits and pieces. You don't have to go through the traditional routes. It certainly makes you feel happier. It doesn't make me feel like I've used someone, which is something you do feel in television, sometimes. It's a horrible feeling.

Are we all doomed?

No. If we look at the past century, we've got a fair chance of sorting something out.

"Extreme Rambling" is on tour -- full gig listings are available here. The book of the tour is published on 7 April 2011 by Ebury Press. You can pre-order it here.

Helen Lewis is deputy editor of the New Statesman. She has presented BBC Radio 4’s Week in Westminster and is a regular panellist on BBC1’s Sunday Politics.

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Are smart toys spying on children?

If you thought stepping on a Lego was bad, consider the new ways in which toys can hurt and harm families.

In January 1999, the president of Tiger Electronics, Roger Shiffman, was forced to issue a statement clearing the name of the company’s hottest new toy. “Furby is not a spy,” he announced to the waiting world.

Shiffman was speaking out after America’s National Security Agency (NSA) banned the toy from its premises. The ban was its response to a playground rumour that Furbies could be taught to speak, and therefore could record and repeat human speech. “The NSA did not do their homework,” said Shiffman at the time.

But if America’s security agencies are still in the habit of banning toys that can record, spy, and store private information, then the list of contraband items must be getting exceptionally long. Nearly 18 years after TE were forced to deny Furby’s secret agent credentials, EU and US consumer watchdogs are filing complaints about a number of WiFi and Bluetooth connected interactive toys, also known as smart toys, which have hit the shelves. Equipped with microphones and an internet connection, many have the power to invade both children’s and adults’ private lives.

***

“We wanted a smart toy that could learn and grow with a child,” says JP Benini, the co-founder of the CogniToys “Dino”, an interactive WiFi-enabled plastic dinosaur that can hold conversations with children and answer their questions. Benini and his team won the 2014 Watson Mobile Developer Challenge, allowing them to use the question-answering software IBM Watson to develop the Dino. As such, unlike the “interactive” toys of the Nineties and Noughties, Dino doesn’t simply reiterate a host of pre-recorded stock phrases, but has real, organic conversations. “We grew it from something that was like a Siri for kids to something that was more conversational in nature.”

In order for this to work, Dino has a speaker in one nostril and a microphone in the other, and once a child presses the button on his belly, everything they say is processed by the internet-connected toy. The audio files are turned into statistical data and transcripts, which are then anonymised and encrypted. Most of this data is, in Benini’s words, “tossed out”, but his company, Elemental Path, which owns CogniToys, do store statistical data about a child, which they call “Play Data”. “We keep pieces from the interaction, not the full interaction itself,” he tells me.

“Play Data” are things like a child’s favourite colour or sport, which are used to make a profile of the child. This data is then available for the company to view, use, and pass on to third parties, and for parents to see on a “Parental Panel”. For example, if a child tells Dino their favourite colour is “red”, their mother or father will be able to see this on their app, and Elemental Path will be able to use this information to, Benini says, “make a better toy”.

Currently, the company has no plans to use the data with any external marketers, though it is becoming more and more common for smart toys to store and sell data about how they are played with. “This isn’t meant to be just another monitoring device that's using the information that it gathers to sell it back to its user,” says Benini.

Sometimes, however, Elemental Path does save, store, and use the raw audio files of what a child has said to the toy. “If the Dino is asked a question that it doesn’t know, we take that question and separate it from the actual child that’s asking it and it goes into this giant bucket of unresolved questions and we can analyse that over time,” says Benini. It is worth noting, however, that Amazon reviews of the toy claim it is frequently unable to answer questions, meaning there is potentially an abundance of audio saved, rather than it being an occasional occurrence.

CogniToys have a relatively transparent Privacy Policy on their website, and it is clear that Benini has considered privacy at length. He admits that the company has been back and forth about how much data to store, originally offering parents the opportunity to see full transcripts of what their child had been saying, until many fed back that they found this “creepy”. Dino is not the first smart toy to be criticised in this way.

Hello Barbie is the world’s first interactive Barbie doll, and when it was released by Mattel in 2015, it was met with scorn by parents’ rights groups and privacy campaigners. Like Dino, the doll holds conversations with children and stores data about them which it passes back to the parents, and articles expressing concerns about the toy featured on CNN, the Guardian, and the New York Times. Despite Dino’s similarities, however, Benini’s toy received almost no negative attention, while Hello Barbie won the Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood’s prize for worst toy of the year 2015.

“We were lucky with that one,” he says, “Like the whole story of the early bird gets the worm but the second worm doesn’t get eaten. Coming second on all of this allowed us to be prepared to address the privacy concerns in greater depth.”

Nonetheless, Dino is in many ways essentially the same as Hello Barbie. Both toys allow companies and parents to spy on children’s private playtimes, and while the former might seem more troubling, the latter is not without its problems. A feature on the Parental Panel of the Dino also allows parents to see the exact wording of questions children have asked about certain difficult topics, such as sex or bullying. In many ways, this is the modern equivalent of a parent reading their child's diary. 

“Giving parents the opportunity to side-step their basic responsibility of talking to, engaging with, encouraging and reassuring their child is a terrifying glimpse into a society where plastic dinosaurs rule and humans are little more than machines providing the babies for the reptile robots to nurture,” says Renate Samson, the chief executive of privacy campaign group Big Brother Watch. “We are used to technology providing convenience in our lives to the detriment of our privacy, but allowing your child to be taught, consoled and even told to meditate by a WiFi connected talking dinosaur really is a step in the wrong direction.”

***

Toy companies and parents are one thing, however, and to many it might seem trivial for a child’s privacy to be comprised in this way. Yet many smart toys are also vulnerable to hackers, meaning security and privacy are under threat in a much more direct way. Ken Munro, of Pen Test Partners, is an ethical hacker who exposed security flaws in the interactive smart toy “My Friend Cayla” by making her say, among other things, “Calm down or I will kick the shit out of you.”

“We just thought ‘Wow’, the opportunity to get a talking doll to swear was too good,” he says. “It was the kid in me. But there were deeper concerns.”

Munro explains that any device could connect to the doll over Bluetooth, provided it was in range, as the set-up didn’t require a pin or password. He also found issues with the encryption processes used by the company. “You can say anything to a child through the doll because there's no security,” he says. “That means you've got a device that can potentially be used to groom a child and that's really creepy.”

Pen Test Partners tells companies about the flaws they find with their products in a process they call “responsible disclosure”. Most of the time, companies are grateful for the information, and work through ways to fix the problem. Munro feels that Vivid Toy Group, the company behind Cayla, did a “poor job” at fixing the issue. “All they did was put one more step in the process of getting it to swear for us.”

It is one thing for a hacker to speak to a child through a toy and another for them to hear them. Early this year, a hack on baby monitors ignited such concerns. But any toy with speech recognition that is connected to the internet is also vulnerable to being hacked. The data that is stored about how children play with smart toys is also under threat, as Fisher Price found out this year when a security company managed to obtain the names, ages, birthdays, and genders of children who had played with its smart toys. In 2015, VTech also admitted that five million of its customers had their data breached in a hack.

“The idea that your child shares their playtime with a device which could potentially be hacked, leaving your child’s inane or maybe intimate and revealing questions exposed is profoundly worrying,” says Samson. Today, the US Electronic Privacy Information Center (EPIC) said in a statement that smart toys “pose an imminent and immediate threat to the safety and security of children in the United States”. 

Munro says big brands are usually great at tackling these issues, but warns about smaller, cheaper brands who have less to lose than companies like Disney or Fisher Price. “I’m not saying they get it right but if someone does find a problem they’ve got a huge incentive to get it right subsequently,” he says of larger companies. Thankfully, Munro says that he found Dino to be secure. “I would be happy for my kids to play with it,” he says. “We did find a couple of bugs but we had a chat with them and they’re a good bunch. They aren’t perfect but I think they’ve done a hell of a lot of a better job than some other smart toy vendors.”

Benini appears alert to security and the credibility it gives his company. “We took the security very, very seriously,” he says. “We were still building our systems whilst these horror stories were coming about so I already set pipelines and parameters in place. With a lot of devices out there it seems that security takes a backseat to the idea, which is really unfortunate when you’re inviting these devices into your home.”

As well as being wary of smaller brands, Munro advises that parents should look out for Bluetooth toys without a secure pairing process (ie. any device can pair with the toy if near enough), and to think twice about which toys you connect to your WiFi. He also advises to use unique passwords for toys and their corresponding apps.

“You might think ‘It's just a toy, so I can use the same password I put in everything else’ – dog’s name, football club, whatever – but actually if that ever got hacked you’d end up getting all your accounts that use that same password hacked,” he says.

Despite his security advice, Munro describes himself as “on the fence” about internet-connected smart toys as a whole. “Most internet of things devices can be hacked in one way or another,” he says. “I would urge caution.”

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Is all of this legal? Companies might not be doing enough ethically to protect the privacy of children, but are they acting responsibly within the confines of the law?

Benini explains that Dino complies with the United States Children's Online Privacy Protection Act (COPPA) of which there is no real equivalent in the UK. COPPA says that companies must have parental permission to collect personal information over the internet about children under 13 years of age. “We’ve tried to go above and beyond the original layout of COPPA,” says Benini, when describing CogniToys transparent privacy documents. Parents give their consent for Elemental Path to collect their children’s data when they download the app that pairs with the toy.

Dino bears a striking similarity to Amazon Echo and Google Home, smart speakers that listen out for commands and questions in your home. Everything that is said to Amazon Echo is recorded and sent to the cloud, and an investigation by the Guardian earlier this year discovered that this does not comply with COPPA. We are therefore now in a strange position whereby many internet of things home devices are legally considered a threat to a child’s privacy, whereas toys with the same capabilities are not. This is an issue because many parents may not actually be aware that they are handing over their children’s data when installing a new toy.

As of today, EU consumer rights groups are also launching complaints against certain smart toys, claiming they breach the EU Unfair Contract Terms Directive and the EU Data Protection Directive, as well as potentially the Toy Safety Directive. Though smart toys may be better regulated in Europe, there are no signs that the problem is being tackled in the UK. 

At a time when the UK government are implementing unprecedented measures to survey its citizens on the internet and Jeremy Hunt wants companies to scour teens’ phones for sexts, it seems unlikely that any legislation will be enacted that protects children’s privacy from being violated by toy companies. Indeed, many internet of things companies – including Elemental Path – admit they will hand over your data to government and law enforcement officials when asked.

***

As smart toys develop, the threat they pose to children only becomes greater. The inclusion of sensors and cameras means even more data can be collected about children, and their privacy can and will be compromised in worrying ways.

Companies, hackers, and even parents are denying children their individual right to privacy and private play. “Children need to feel that they can play in their own place,” says Samson. It is worrying to set a precedent where children get used to surveillance early on. All of this is to say nothing of the educational problems of owning a toy that will tell you (rather than teach you) how to spell “space” and figure out “5+8”.

In a 1999 episode of The Simpsons, “Grift of the Magi”, a toy company takes over Springfield Elementary and spies on children in order to create the perfect toy, Funzo. It is designed to destroy all other toys, just in time for Christmas. Many at the time criticised the plot for being absurd. Like the show's prediction of President Trump, however, it seems that we are living in a world where satire slowly becomes reality.

Amelia Tait is a technology and digital culture writer at the New Statesman.